As Writers We Can’t Edit Our Own Work—Or Can We?

As Writers We Can’t Edit Our Own Work—Or Can We?
3:41 pm , March 23, 2017 0

As writers, we know we shouldn’t edit our own work but we have no choice when the deadline is tomorrow and there is no one else available. In this day and age of working from home, many of us have a variety of writing assignments with tight deadlines and sometimes may be writing late into the night. With no editor available (awake) for those crunch times, we have no choice but to suck it up and do our best to edit our own material.


Why Editing Our Own Writing is so Difficult 


Some of us are editors as well as writers and able to edit the writing of someone else and do an acceptable job; however, when we are editing our own work, we run into problems.


One of them is a psychological phenomena called “pareidolia.” The word means that humans are blessed with brains that are wired to recognize patterns. This is normally a great asset, and we are likely to see patterns even in meaningless data, which can be fun, e.g., “Look at that cloud. I see a lion. What do you see?” (Okay, maybe it’s not so much fun now that we are grownups, but it was cool once upon a time.) However, it’s not so much fun when we see patterns in our typing that causes us to overlook errors.


Another problem is that we are trying to convey meaning with our words and are concentrating on a high level mental task, with the result that our brains generalize simple related tasks (like spelling words correctly), which is a lower mental task and where we are most likely to make mistakes.


Both these problems arise when we are editing our own work, and you have probably run into all these same difficulties that have driven me crazy over the years:


  • You will sometimes see words that aren’t there. The word “can” is essential for your sentence to make sense but it’s missing. Your brain supplies the word because it knows what you wrote and what you meant, e.g., “I get it for you” is seen by you as “I can get it for you.”


  • You have cut and pasted some words and don’t notice that the word “can” has been repeated and the two are now side by side, e.g., “I can can get it for you.” Or there may be a word in between them, e.g., “I can get can it for you. “ and you don’t see these glaring errors.


  • Homophones are hard to spot. You meant “there,” and you know “there” is the correct choice, but you write “their” instead. Your brain knows which word you meant and will identify it to you as the correct choice when you are editing even when it’s the wrong choice.


Spell check and grammar check will notify a writer of errors at the start of a new article, but after receiving repeated refusals to take writing advice (often incorrect) from a computer, the surly machine will give up and the writer is left on his own to sink or swim without any helpful red or green signals.


These Techniques Can Help You Catch Your Errors 


When you are stuck editing your own material, try these methods of changing the pattern of what your mind expects to see:


  • Change the font and size of your text. If you wrote an article using Cambria size 12, change it to Times Roman size 10. (This is my favorite method of searching for errors.)
  • Read the article aloud and look and point at each word as you say it. (I use this technique as a second check.)
  • Use text-to-voice software such as NaturalReader and pick up errors by listening to your article.
  • Use word search for the most common word confusions such as “we’re/were/where” and re-read each sentence containing those words, and any others that commonly trip you up.
  • Read the article backwards, paragraph by paragraph. Start by reading the last paragraph first and continuing to the start of the article. This method interrupts the flow of words and helps you focus on what you actually typed rather than what you expect to see.


As writers, we know we shouldn’t edit our own work but we often have no choice because all the editors we know are sensibly tucked up in bed asleep by the time our articles are finished. I know by experience that reading the material over and over until I am glassy-eyed is not the solution. Instead, I must change things up by using a couple of techniques to trick my brain into thinking it has never seen the article before to help me find all the errors and save myself from looking like a jerk when the article is published.


Creative Commons Attribution: Permission is granted to repost this article in its entirety with credit to Maureen Grenier and a clickable link back to this page.

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